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Craft, Expertise and Value

Now that my UKRI/RCUK Innovation Fellowship, Craft Expertise (short name) is off the ground and the first round of interviews and ethnography have been completed, I’m able to share some initial thoughts.

First a quick recap – this project is in collaboration with Crafts Council UK and aims to support greater diversity in the UK craft economy. It follows on from my initial postdoctoral project with the Crafts Council which explored the potential role of social media for supporting diversity in craft. The current project seeks to build on the practical and intellectual contributions of the initial project.

A clear theme emerging from my first 15 interviews with women makers of colour is how their craft is valued. I’ve interviewed women who are relatively well established, as well as women taking part in jewellery beginner courses with a view to potentially starting a small craft business in their community. These are seemingly two opposing ends of the craft practice spectrum, thus the way in which crafts are valued in this context manifests in two different ways. First, in the case of the women who are relatively well established, there is a sense that they have had to work very hard to get their expertise recognised, if it has been recognised at all. In my PhD (to be released as a book next year) I argue that while it is important for cultural workers to be able to signal their expertise, it is imperative that their expertise be recognised an legitimated as such. Only then can they work towards establishing themselves. The problem is, what if entrenched structures mean that your expertise can’t be recognised? Furthermore, what is the point of signalling expertise if cultural leaders and decision makers cannot, or do not want, to see you?

This idea of expertise being dismissed is in evidence among the interviews I have done with the established makers. In many cases their presence at certain makerspaces, or at craft events, has been questioned because of their ethnicity. Some have even been asked if they were there to “tick a box”. Such experiences are discussed in the first episode of the Maker Stories podcast series produced as part of this project, in which I interview London-based designer-maker Jasmine Carey. Many of the women working in craft professionally have been through higher education and developed a level of expertise in their craft. Yet their experiences in a predominantly white, middle class sector are shaped because of the colour of their skin. Their craft expertise is not recognised as expertise, instead they are made to fight for recognition, made to feel as if they don’t belong, or dismissed as a ‘token’, a result of diversity policies which as Sara Ahmed has shown, merely pay lip service and do little to address inequalities.

On the other hand, the women I have been interviewing who took part in a jewellery making course were predominantly migrants from Bangladesh or Pakistan, who live in Birmingham. They fundamentally think of craft as an important practice for wellbeing, mental health and socialising, as well as a useful skill. The free courses enable them to see craft practice as a potential way to make money from small scale enterprise. Primarily for them, craft is a practical skill akin to cooking and cleaning, but with much more potential for self-fulfilment. In this sense the cultural perceptions of craft come into play, whereby the domestic connotations of certain crafts mean that they are not commonly seen as a suitable career choice, as discussed in my report from the previous project.

While perspectives slightly differ across the two participant groups, the commonality is that the valuing of craft is gendered, racialised and arguably, classed. The work on cultural value by Kate Oakley and Dave O’Brien suggests a link between cultural value and inequality, whereby “specific types of cultural consumption are intertwined with who is able to succeed in cultural production” (2015:3). As professional craft in global north contexts has traditionally been associated with white men (because they made up the majority of the membership of craft guilds), women, and especially women of colour, do not inhabit the long-standing norms of this space. Thus, their ability to develop their craft expertise and get it recognised, is made all the more difficult because of these entrenched assumptions about what a craftsman entails. This is evidenced by the fact that according to Crafts Council UK figures, the majority of those working in secure, full-time craft work are white men. These structural issues are compounded by long-standing perceptions of certain types of craft as amateur, domestic and not a viable career choice.

I have more analysis to do on this and my interviews and ethnography will continue into the new year, where I hope to learn more about individual experiences in craft. With participants, collaborators and through further research I hope we can work towards addressing how the craft expertise of minority groups is framed and valued.

Projects update

The Creative Economy Engagement (CEEF) project in collaboration with Crafts Council UK is now coming to an end, and there are some exciting outputs from the project which will be posted on the Crafts Council website soon. The most recent blog post updates about the final workshop and next steps are here.

I am delighted to announce that I have been awarded a two-year AHRC Leadership Fellowship which builds on the CEEF project and extends the existing partnership with Crafts Council UK. The funding will allow me to revisit my thinking on expertise and develop a theoretical account of aesthetic expertise in the contemporary craft economy. More details to follow soon.

Creative Economy Engagement Project Update

This is an update on my AHRC funded project with the Crafts Council originally posted on their website

I am now almost three months into this AHRC-supported Creative Economy Engagement Fund project in collaboration with the Crafts Council. For this project we are looking at how digital technology, mainly social media, could support diversity in craft practice. As stated in my previous blog post, I am looking for women makers from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds to participate in an interview and a free social media workshop ran by myself. I am still recruiting participants, so if you are interested, or know anyone who is, do get in touch at the email address below.
So far I have carried out eight interviews with makers from London and Birmingham, and already some interesting themes have emerged about the role of social media in craft practice and the specific experiences of BAME women.

Below the main themes emerging from the research so far:

  • For the women makers of Asian origin in particular, family and cultural expectations have sometimes made it difficult for them to make a career out of craft initially, because it is expected they would go into a more ‘secure’ or prestigious job. This raises questions about how craft practice, particularly by women, is valued in some cultures.
  • Many of the participants are wary of appearing too ‘sales-like’ or ‘pushy’ on social media. Also, some do not feel confident with revealing aspects of their practice or personal lives online, and prefer to keep their social media presence ‘strictly professional’. Such sentiments are also evident in my PhD, my paper with Annette Naudin (Naudin and Patel, 2017) and in accounts of women’s self-promotion by Genz (2014) and Scharff (2015). The lack of confidence with self-promotion may be even more apparent among BAME women, which I am looking to explore further.
  • Some participants discussed the tensions between using social media and the nature of their craft practice. Some makers become immersed in the slow pace and detail of making, and for them this is at odds with the fast pace and brevity of social media. This is an interesting theme emerging which raises questions about the role of social media use in craft practice.
  • The next steps are to continue recruiting participants for interviews and the workshop, and then arrange and devise the London workshop which will take place in June. I will also be holding a workshop in Birmingham in the autumn. The workshops will involve me sharing some social media skills and tips from my own professional experience working in social media. I also want to work with makers to tailor social media guidance for them, with a view to creating some useful resources.

For more details about this project and if you are interested in participating please contact me at karen.patel@mail.bcu.ac.uk.

Post-PhD

It has been a while since I have posted on this blog and that is because I was busy finishing my PhD thesis and preparing for the viva. That is all done and minor corrections have been submitted, so now I am waiting for that official letter!

Just before Christmas I was delighted to have been awarded an AHRC Creative Economy Engagement Fellowship, working with the Crafts Council. Full details are in this blog post and call for participants but essentially I am looking at how women makers from diverse backgrounds use social media. This is building on initial insights in my PhD research relating to the potential benefits of signalling expertise on social media. The women in particular found the mutuality and aspects of community on social media valuable for their career in creative work, however such online spaces appeared to be quite homogeneous. Focusing on the specific area of craft and working with the Crafts Council to address their priority of diversity, I want to look at how social media can support diversity in craft practice. The project incorporates a knowledge exchange approach comprising interviews and social media workshops with makers.

During this project I also want to think about notions of expertise in craft practice, which I touch on in the thesis but there is much more scope for further exploration. The project is running until the end of October 2018, so keep an eye on my Crafts Council blog for further updates as the project progresses.